How do you solve a problem like Schoenberg? Sweetening the musical pill is a good start, and whilst neither the billed Brahms nor Beethoven received saccharine readings, the contrast between the angularity of the programmed modernism and the sheer beauty of these canonical works was all the more acute through their juxtaposition.

Mitsuko Uchida, © Roger Mastroianni
Mitsuko Uchida,
© Roger Mastroianni

The music of the Second Viennese School – in other words, the expressionist and serialist music of Schoenberg and his disciples – continues to challenge audiences; and even though this particular concerto is relatively well-endowed with comforting phrase lengths and discernible melodic ideas, Schoenberg did not mean for it to be easy listening. Written in 1942, the manuscript contains brief, descriptive titles for each of the four interconnected movements: 'Life was so pleasant'; 'Suddenly hatred broke out'; 'A grave situation was created'; 'But life goes on...'. But even if these titles hint at some vague narrative arch, the language of Schoenberg goes some way to counter any sense of coherence: it is difficult to distinguish the strife from the relief, and Uchida and Salonen's account perhaps found too much of the same within the work: the sound was always beautiful – ravishing, in fact – and every phrase was charged with high expressivity; the textures were crystal clear and the structure cleanly revealed. They clearly strived to trace the recognisable traits – the Mozartian interplay between soloist and orchestra; the lyrical treatment of lines – but it almost sounded unidiomatic, missing grit and angst, let alone gravity or inevitability.

If Schoenberg's concerto is an evocation of historical precedents – both musical and biographical – Brahms' Variations, Op. 56a are a vivid recasting of a classical theme, commonly attributed to Haydn. For a long time it was assumed that this distinctive setting of the pilgrim melody, the St Anthony Chorale, was the second movement of a divertimento for wind octet by the Viennese grand-patriarch. Alas, it would appear that actually the tune has nothing to do with Haydn at all and that Brahms discovered it by other means. He originally conceived his variations for two pianos, only later refitting them for orchestra, thus giving voice to the wonderful contrapuntal complexities. Salonen revelled in these, with a richly defined bass underscoring the colourful orchestration, marked, in particular, by glorious wind tones and transparent textures.

Sandwiching the piquant concerto at the other end came Beethoven's Symphony no. 7. Completed in 1812 and premièred at a charity concert the following year, Beethoven's 'apotheosis of the dance' – as Richard Wagner dubbed it – has always been a tremendous success with audiences: the slow movement was encored at its first performance, following ecstatic applause, and a repeat performance was arranged just a few days later. And just as Beethoven's original orchestra was dotted with the prominent musical figures of the time (including Salieri, Meyerbeer, Spohr, and Hummel), an all-star cast pulled together for Salonen's lean account of the symphony, the finale perhaps lacking shape at the expense of speed. It was fine musical sculpting that distinguished the second movement, however, with Salonen allowing Beethoven's developmental and monolithic orchestration to consume his delicately crafted opening, which reinforced both the thoughtfulness of the Philharmonia's principal conductor and the sensitivity of the players themselves.